Guessing at the future of books

I love books. Got library cards, own stacks, have passwords to online retailers and bonus cards for the bookshops; have tried bookbinding (operation unsuccessful), once actually on an own written work of mine; am a minor typography nerd, and even got a Bookeen Cybook Gen3, a shiny e-ink marvel.

Being thus moderately obsessed/in love with the written word and its delivery, I from time to time think up ill-educated guesses at the future of books.

People with more data, people that actually get paid for doing it, do the same, and now and then I come across their opinions.

Some times I do not agree.

Some say that paper is the best solution for books: it’s cheap, durable, disposable and needs only a light to use. Hence paper books forever. That seems a bit dodgy — I’d guess little over a century ago people thought there was just no way those newfangled electric lamps could ever be better than a torch or an oil lamp. The electric thingies were bulky, fragile, expensive… and worst of all, needed some bulky power generator to use.

Nowadays, I can buy an electric torch for three euros. (3.99 American, this day only!) I even got one that doesn’t need batteries because it has a crank. There probably are ones that have solar cells, despite how much like a bad idea that sounds.

Technology keeps getting better. Today’s books are cheaper and in every way more efficiently made than medieval codexes or Egyptian papyri. I can easily accept the thought of a future where having a book that is its bindings, no more and no less, is just as widespread as wood-covered codexes and papyri now: luxury items and extreme memorabilia, not vehicles of delivery.

(The most common analogy is horses and cars — horses haven’t gone away, but they’ve become a very marginal mode of transport. Saying that books have always been with us, that they are a superior tactile sensation, a fixed point in the human psyche, is no more of an insight than “But we’ve always ridden horses!”)

Insert here a vaguely conciliatory comment on how it’s just the content that matters. Also note how future books could just as well be biotechnical marvel monsters that decompose at the touch of a button — once far out, gross-out isn’t a reach.

I’d guess that in due time (a century?) a “book” will be a square of something paperish that you can stuff in your pocket (folded? crumpled? shrunken to a pill by a touch of the right corner?), but that can call up and display crisp clear more letters than the Library of Alexandria ever had. (Though it probably can’t be used to warm bath-houses.) You’d probably have several, just in case and just because you can afford several; but the content would not be bound to any particular book device of yours. (Well, except your copy of “My Life in the Danish Entertainment Industry” by Lascivia Hornee, which would be tied to just that book under your mattress.)

You just touch one side of the “book” and the letters dissolve and reform in an eyeblink. Unless — and now this is rank speculation — the machine tracks your eyes, and refreshes the top of the page while you’re busy reading the lower part. Or maybe the highly portable paperbacks will be replaced with small cylinders you just turn around and around, a never-ending, ever-refreshing roll of words. For more dedicated reading, you’d whip out a solid screen of bigger size. Maybe it’d play videos and sounds too. (Because of my love of books you can’t persuade me that the customized word delivery vehicle will be totally absorbed by the future mobile-computer. There will always be niches.) Since I’m suitably ignorant about machinery, I suppose with full confidence that eventually the deciding factor of book-devices won’t be “what can we make it do” but “what do we want it to do”. (Not supposing there’ll be a book with a chainsaw attached, unless you go custom; but something like the price of e-ink screens is a strictly temporary problem. Just wait a few centuries and it’s gone. As am I, so you won’t get to tell me I’m wrong.)

Some people have said that the devices currently marketed feel impersonal and cold — but hey, look at that computer you’re using. It’s a much more mature product, and if personal, it can be a very familiar and personal product indeed. (Or maybe that’s just me — now and then I almost find myself singing along to Bad Religion’s I Love My Computer with no irony at all.)

Once ebook readers grow up a bit, you can do all relevant things you could do with a paper book: scribble in the margins, tear out pages, and more: if the Dark Gods of DRM are cast down and hacked to pieces, you might actually take your copy of the Lord of the Rings and tell it to change all mentions of “Elrond” to “Agent Smith”.

The possibility of carrying Alexandria with you is not the end but the beginning: how about all the other upsides of not having your book be a collection of smudges of ink? There are a few paper-ish books that are water- and heat-resistant; no reason why the books of tomorrow shouldn’t eventually be the same and more. Fancy reading some Jacques Cousteau while diving? Or some Asimov while luxuriating in a sauna?

Or how about having the definition of each word in the novel a tap of your finger away — imagine what that would do to those learning a new language! Did you forgot who the devil this minor character was? Click the name and choose “search up”. Or alternatively have the relevant line of the dramatis personae pop up. Dear empty heavens, think of the possibilities for choose-your-own-adventure novels, snaking and coiling in ways that would push a paper book to note-taking and thousands of almost identical pages! Imagine all the exciting alien ways and forms of literature that will be!

And that doesn’t even touch on all the social stuff — “Do you want to install ‘Errata Pack 4’ for A. Schwarzenegger’s ‘The 28nd Amendment and My Path to the Presidency’? All, one-by-one, later, no.”

(“You have chosen ‘later’. I’ll be back.”)

The Internet part of it all is quite too awesome to be touched here; though it can go wrong in ways that make my blood boil. (Short-short: scammer sold ebooks of Orwell without having the copyright; Amazon got panicked and squashed it, in process deleting even the copies people had already bought — one of the unpleasant sides of the Kindle. Seriously, I’d be much happier if Amazon’s ability to do what they did — no matter how illegal the product was — was legally beyond them. No matter the refund, once the bookseller can come back and snuff out your books, you don’t own them no more.) And if I started on subjects close to the sad file format confusion and DRM, I’d end up trying to summon a shoggoth to do battle with the Sinisters Shadowslords of RIAA. (True, I’m Finnish, but a big fool’s a big worry though he be far away.)

Now, what was I going on about? Ah yes, books. I think eventually having enough room for your library is as silly a thought as having enough space for your computer. Was a problem for ENIAC, is no problem anymore. And saying that ebooks are more prone to destruction than paper ones is just breathtakingly dumb — pray tell me how you take your paperback and put it in a safe USB drive, your reader and your e-mail box at the same time? How you ask your bookseller for a second copy since yours got targeted by an incontinent canine? (Then again, this too can be crippled by DRM, that misconceived bastard child of the desire to prevent that which cannot be avoided.)

Ebooks don’t yellow with age; they don’t get torn, damaged by coffee or eaten by children or a bum with the munchies. Provided you keep copying them (provided you insist on a right to do so), they can migrate and morph wherever you go. Floppies and C-tapes are hard to read nowadays, but that’s not a valid consideration unless you open your library only once every decade or so. The vast majority of book-material is so trivial to convert (aargh typesetter hate mail bait) there’s no reason anything should be left behind. (Again the currently immense caveat of “unless them bastards don’t let you”.) I’d say figuring out a non-insane file format is a lot easier than piecing together rotten papyri; and pure text is so minuscule size-wise you could just as well keep ten formats rather than one.

I wonder if there will be some bifurcation of language, like a “book” being the device without regard to its content, and the content being called novels, short stories, poems, manga… but not books. Someone will have to come up with something, because “e-ink reader device” is a tad cumbersome.

It’s nice to imagine going for a walk, meeting a girl handing out commercial leaflets (dirt cheap, disposable and lightly scented) for the new place downtown, then tapping the single-sided disposable leaflet empty of the gushy promises (save the decal covering its ruggedized back), and into showing a map of the city, a garish cross showing your position courtesy of your portable computer, woven into the fibers of your stylish scarf — and then when a toilet break interrupts your walk and your ruminations of just how cool and with-it and stylish you are, tapping the leaflet into showing the chapter of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies you were in the middle of, because a book is not the paper but the words, and words can live free of the bindings.

As for short-range speculation, sorry, I don’t do that. Long range is much easier when you’re strategically ill-informed.

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